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Even after big-league debut, Howard remains a prospect with much to prove

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As baseball's offseason takes shape, we will take a look at each player on the Phillies 2020 roster and where they fit in the future. We'll go through the roster by uniform number, lowest to highest for position players, highest to lowest for pitchers, and alternate daily.

Today: Pitcher Spencer Howard

Career rundown

Howard, who turned 24 in July, blossomed into a frontline prospect while pitching at Single A Lakewood in 2018. He struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings that season and finished with a nine-strikeout, one-walk no-hitter in the South Atlantic League playoffs. He touched 100 mph with his fastball in that game. Howard made his major league debut in 2020.

How he became a Phillie

The right-hander walked on at Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo and was not used regularly as a starter until his junior season. Phillies scout Shane Bowers was very high on Howard and recommended that Johnny Almaraz, then the Phillies scouting director, peek in on Howard’s start against UCLA. Almaraz loved what he saw and made up his mind on the spot: The Phillies would take Howard with their second-round pick (45th overall) in the 2017 draft. The Phils selected outfielder Adam Haseley in the first round.

2020 season

Howard was viewed as an X factor, a difference maker in waiting, back in March. He had battled some shoulder tendinitis in 2019 so management planned to take it easy with him early in the season, preserve his innings, and bring him to the big leagues around mid-season. The COVID shutdown kept Howard’s workload in check and he debuted in the majors on August 9. He was not the difference maker that club officials hoped he’d be. He went 1-2 with a 5.92 ERA in six starts and allowed 30 hits in 24 1/3 innings.

 

Howard did show the fastball that pushed triple digits in the minors. In fact, by the time his fourth start came around, he was having trouble maintaining his velocity during the game. He averaged 95-plus mph in the first inning but was down under 92 mph in the fifth inning.

Theories were plentiful in explaining Howard’s drop in velocity. Manager Joe Girardi said the team would look into everything from conditioning to diet. He suggested that the unusual build-up to the season had prevented the pitcher from building peak arm strength. Howard made two more starts and was placed on the Injured List with shoulder stiffness. He made it back quickly and was activated for the final week of the season but did not pitch.

What lies ahead

Howard is pretty much right where he was a year ago: He’s a top-end prospect with three plus pitches who still needs to prove himself at the big-league level. He gained some experience in 2020 and that should help next season, but he still has only reached 100 innings once in his pro career so he could be looking at workload limits again. And then there’s that shoulder issue, which appears minor but needs to be paid attention to because it has reared its head two years in a row. On paper, Howard is this team’s fourth or fifth starter coming out of camp next year. His performance will dictate where he goes from there.

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